A question that I am often asked at this time of the year is how to prepare a holiday meal for a large gathering of people? Back in my hotel and restaurant days I often would do 400+ person dinners on Thanksgiving Day, but that was in a professional kitchen with a full crew. At a home it is a little different but the same basic principles apply. At this point I should mention that at Omaha Steaks we have everything you need for your holiday gathering including the roasts, side dishes, sauces, desserts and appetizers. Most of which are just heat and serve which really cuts down on the amount of work, complication and most importantly allows you to spend more time with your guests. That being said if you prefer to do everything the hard way, then here are my tips.
1. Plan Ahead
The most important thing is to be organized and plan ahead. You want to do most of the work long before your guests arrive. Several weeks before the event figure out the guest list and menu. Make sure you have enough plates, silverware, glasses and serving dishes for the event. Figure out the menu. Gather all your recipes of the dishes you want to prepare into one place. Even if you do not use recipes, write down an outline of the ingredients for each dish. Order your roasts from Omaha Steaks. Make sure you have the kitchen equipment you need to pull of the event. Now would also be a good time to borrow or buy roasters to hold hot food on the day of the event.
2. Make a shopping list
Once you have your menu done and recipes in hand it is time to make your shopping list. Make it as detailed as possible even if you know you already have the ingredient on hand. This should be done several weeks before the event and then as you do your regular grocery shopping you can start chipping away at the list little by little. Don’t forget things like beverages, extra ice and other items you will need for the event.
3. Thawing roasts & turkeys
This seems to be the most common mistake most people make is waiting until the last minute to thaw your large roasts. If you have a good cold fridge it can take up to a week for a large 15lb turkey to fully thaw. I recommend allowing a day for every 2 pounds of roast. This will be overkill in most cases but having it thawed a day or two early will not affect your meal in the least.
4. Make a prep list
This is the key to a smooth event. I recommend making three separate lists. One for things you can do several days in advance, one for the day before the event (this should be your largest list) and one for the day of the event.
5. Do as much of your prep the day before the event as possible
I always try to do as much as possible the day before the event. For really large Thanksgiving gatherings I will go so far as to cook the turkeys, slice them and put all of the meat into reheating pans the day before. This allows me to make my gravy and stuffing the day before. This frees up lots of time on Thanksgiving Day for me to visit with guests or handle any last minute items that pop up. One thing to keep in mind when cooking food the day before is to cool it quickly and completely to prevent any bacterial growth. It is also important to reheat pre-cooked food quickly. That being said, be sure to practice good sanitation at all times. Don’t let kids or family members help without first washing their hands. Make sure all containers and equipment are clean and sanitary. The last thing you want around the holidays is a case of food poisoning.
6. Make a fire list for day of the event
Most professional chefs make a list they call the fire list. This is basically a timeline for the day of the event that tells you when to start things and when to finish things. This is particularly important if you only have one oven. You want to plan what time things go into the oven and what time they come out. The times should be in chronological order so on the day of the event you just go down the list and never forget anything. Things like large roasts can come out of the oven up to an hour before you are going to serve them. This allows your roast time to rest and frees up the oven for side dishes. If you have one recipe that needs to be cooked at 400 degrees and another that needs 350 just compromise at 375 and adjust the cooking times appropriately. There are many tricks to keeping hot food hot but the best is to use electric roasters and crock pots. This frees up your oven and stove which allows you to make several recipes well ahead time.
There you have it. I find that if I craft a detailed plan in advance it takes away a lot of the stress of cooking for large gatherings and allows me to do a better job and enjoy spending time my friends and family.